Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Romney's lame response on bullying allegations

By Paul Waldman, Special to CNN
updated 3:49 PM EDT, Fri May 11, 2012
Mitt Romney missed a chance to show empathy, says Paul Waldman.
Mitt Romney missed a chance to show empathy, says Paul Waldman.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Waldman: Running for president means people will delve deep into your past
  • He says Romney likely alarmed by article alleging he bullied a boy when he was a teen
  • He says Romney said he didn't recall, expressed regret. For other boys there, it was vivid
  • Waldman: Romney missed a chance to convince skeptical voters that he has empathy

Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- We sometimes liken the presidential campaign to an extended job interview, but it's certainly unlike any job any of us has ever applied for.

You've probably never gone into an interview where your prospective employer said, "Your résumé looks good, but of course we'll have to decide if we like your spouse, go through your tax returns, talk to your elementary school classmates, see how you react when crazy people ask you bizarre questions, and make sure the car you drive communicates the proper patriotism and ordinary-guy credibility." It isn't enough to know whether a candidate can do the job well or whether his agenda accords with ours; we need to gaze into the very depths of his soul.

Paul Waldman
Paul Waldman

This question becomes particularly acute for candidates who seem awkward or unskilled at the glad-handing part of politics, the requirement to forge deep emotional connections with voters in the span of a few seconds. Mitt Romney is only the latest to struggle with "authenticity" (as John Kerry and Al Gore did), and six months from election day voters and reporters are still trying to determine just what kind of person he is.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

So it no doubt caused panic in the Romney camp when the Washington Post published an account of Romney's high school years at the elite Cranbrook school in suburban Detroit, detailing the young man's penchant for practical jokes and what he now calls "hijinks." The worst was an incident involving a socially awkward boy, suspected of being gay, who had dyed his hair blond.

Romney apologizes for teen pranks
Campaign rep.: Romney 'unfailingly kind'
Romney apologizes for high school pranks

"He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!" Romney told a friend, according to the Post. He then led a group that tracked the boy down, tackled him, and held him on the ground. As the boy cried and yelled for help, Romney reportedly clipped his hair with scissors.

When he was questioned about the story, Romney gave what has now become the politicians' standard response to the revelation of misbehavior from long ago: "I don't recall the incident myself, but I've seen the reports and I'm not going to argue with that. There's no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it."

You'd hardly expect any politician in his position to say anything different.

Perhaps Romney is being completely sincere. But the Post confirmed the story with five witnesses, four of whom described it on the record, so there seems little doubt about whether it occurred. They were deeply troubled by their participation in it, and recall it vividly to this day.

News: Romney's ex-classmate: 'It was assault.'

A candidate who has struggled with seeming human, as Mitt Romney has, could have done himself a favor by using this as an opportunity to show a little more of himself. He could have said: Yes, it happened. It was stupid and cruel. I wish I could go back and undo it. But part of growing up is realizing where you failed when you were young, and learning from your mistakes so you can become a better person.

Most importantly, Romney could have said something that indicated he had a conception of how horrible the assault must have been for John Lauber, the victim. His only mention of Lauber, who died in 2004, was to say "I had no idea what that individual's sexual orientation might be."

By referring to Lauber as "that individual" he makes Lauber a nameless figure, further distancing himself from the incident. Which is exactly the opposite of what he should have done. After all, it's the quality of empathy -- being able to see things from someone else's perspective and feel what they feel -- that Romney has had trouble convincing voters he possesses.

This problem comes up for Romney again and again, often in the form of "gaffes" that are usually taken out of context, but still reveal a tin ear for the lives people lead. To take just one example, when Romney said "I like being able to fire people that provide services to me," anyone who has ever been laid off recoiled in shock, whatever the context. Business owners and supervisors who have had to do the firing -- the humane ones, anyway -- know it can be a painful experience from the other side of the desk as well. It may be necessary at times, but you certainly wouldn't say you "like" it.

Perhaps Romney really doesn't remember the assault on John Lauber nearly a half-century ago, despite the fact that so many of the other people who were there have never forgotten it. Or perhaps he decided that claiming ignorance would be the safest course of crisis management. But what he said told people nothing about the man he is today and how he has changed and grown over that time. We're all different people than we were in our youth, and we all have regrets. The 17-year-old Mitt Romney may have been a privileged, entitled boy with a mean streak. The 65-year-old Mitt Romney missed an opportunity to convince us he's something different.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT